June 20, 1922 [Nanook of the North]

When the Lumière brothers sent their cameramen all over the world, they captured things as they were, a few seconds' worth of Paris, Berlin, Melbourne, Niagara, their citizens adorned only with whatever they brought with them into the frame.

Robert Flaherty remembers the experience of direct observation--but also knows the value of narrative, of reality bound by the chain of cause and effect. Bringing the two together is riveting. The daily life of Nanook and his family becomes a series of small dramas, detailed in such a way that one cannot discern the line between actuality and theatricality--that is, the actual becomes dramatic--and intensely so, for, despite the charming simplicity of many of the scenes--everyone in the theater sighed and murmured with pleasure as Nanook fashioned a toy bow for his son--Flaherty grabs us by the nape and takes us forcefully into the frigid heart of the North. Sometimes in the theater, when the mood is right, I can almost hear sounds coming from the screen--steps on a lonely street, the music as the actors dance, even their voices. But I have never felt so cold at the movies. As the family settles in to weather a storm, their igloo constructed right before our eyes, down to the polished-glass window, I shivered a little, the wind howling in silence, the air freezing like a thin winding-sheet. And I felt I knew Nanook: Despite the mask-like quality of his frozen features, his ready grin, I saw his world with the kind of clarity that comes only with fiction.

It is a union I wasn't sure we needed--I was content to allow movies to paint with broad strokes and settle into their unnatural rhythms; but Flaherty brings the real and the artificial together in a way that will change the cinema. Yes, many films have ventured into the world--but to seek adventure and dazzle us. Flaherty creates an intimacy we may not have earned--I am certain I would not survive a single day in Nanook's neighborhood--but which is all the more precious for having been presented to us as a gift, from Nanook himself as much as the camera.


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